Interview with Paul Languedoc, Master Luthier and Sound Engineer
If you’ve read my bio, you know that Phish has been an incredibly positive influence on my life. When the right music hits you at just the right time, it can change your whole perspective and give you new direction. For me, that’s exactly what happened.
There were two things that initially attracted me to the band: the impeccable sound quality at their shows, and the tone of Trey Anastasio’s guitar. As I became a more dedicated fan, I learned that both of those things were attributable to the work of their sound engineer, Paul Languedoc (who not only ran the soundboard, but also crafted the guitar).
Today, Paul has retired from the road, but he’s still building (and selling) handcrafted guitars packed with his trademark look and sound. To learn more about his guitars and join the waiting list to get one, visit the Languedoc Guitars website.
I reached out to Paul to see if he’d be willing to share some of his perspectives on life and business with me, and I was absolutely honored when he agreed. Our conversation is below.
Kevin Spence: You’ve been a luthier since you were 18. What was it that initially attracted you to building guitars?
Paul Languedoc: I think it’s the same for every luthier; a friend started teaching me to play guitar and I thought it would be cool to build one. I have an innate need to build things and had been fooling around with woodcarving and metalworking since I was quite young. I’m also intensely interested in structure, and the complex organic form of the guitar was interesting to me.
KS: You spent more than 20 years as the sound engineer for Phish. But shortly after they broke up (temporarily) in 2004, you decided that you wanted to dedicate your time to building guitars. How did you come to that decision?
PL: Actually, it had been my plan all along! I was building guitars (for a small company in Burlington, VT) when I met the band and started working for them on a lark. There was no indication at first that it would become a career option, but it was fun so I stuck with it.
Also there was lots of equipment to build and fix so it satisfied that urge in me. After four or five years I was surprised to find that we were actually making a living, then I accepted it along with the understanding that it would end one day. I put my shop together while all this was going on, and continued to build guitars on the side, so when my sound engineer career ended I was ready to move ahead.
KS: To me, one of the cool things about electric guitars is the intersection where woodworking and technology meet. It’s half maple, half Tesla. Do you ever have to compromise one for the other?
PL: Well… I’ll argue that woodworking is technology too. And to be honest, in regard to electronics the technology in a guitar is about as basic as it gets, but I get your point. People love guitars as a pure combination of form and function.
In my experience every good instrument is a successful compromise, though some things are more important than others. From an engineering standpoint the least important aspect is how it looks. Even the scroll at the end of a violin’s peghead serves a function in that it provides mass to balance the weight of the body.
With a guitar you have to work within a strict set of parameters, it has to work as a guitar first and foremost. That’s why so many guitar builders are building the same forms that have worked over the years, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you can shoehorn in any of your own style then you might make something a little different.
KS: As a sound engineer, you had some pretty big advantages that most luthiers don’t have. Not only was your guitar in the hands of one of the best guitar players on the planet, but you were also able to hear the shape that the sound took in a room full of people. Was there anything you learned through that experience that other luthiers might benefit from?
PL: I think being a sound engineer tuned my ears, so I feel confident that I can hear little differences in tone. It was a great experience in learning the physics of sound and how it’s translated through electronics.
I also spent several years in a small piano rebuilding shop before my experience with Phish, and I credit that as well to understanding the physics of string vibration and the like. You can probably tell that I have a strong respect for science and engineering, even though I’m in a field that many people consider an art, which I don’t necessarily.
Sitting at a soundboard means you’re constantly evaluating the quality of what you’re hearing, and trying to figure out what might be better and how to fix it the next time. You have to be very objective and judgmental of your work, which is a lesson I think any craftsperson should take to heart.
KS: You run a one-man shop right now — but if you ever decided to hire a junior luthier, what are some of the qualities and abilities they would need to have?
PL: A person would have to have some professional woodworking experience, and be comfortable working to tight tolerances. It would be nice of me to say that I would hire a young inexperienced person in a sort of apprentice model, but the economics of that don’t really work any more.
Nowadays it’s common for small builders like myself to contract out certain parts of the job, like finish or inlay work, to people who specialize in that. If I had a bigger shop with several employees it might be possible to train someone up from scratch, as I was, more or less. Sorry if I’ve gone on a little bit of a tangent. If I hired someone I would hope he or she could bring some original thinking to the job, maybe some methods I haven’t thought of. I’m always looking for better ways to do things.
KS: What is the average day at ‘the office’ like for you?
I’m not really a morning person, it usually takes me a little while to get my head into it. I put in a lot of hours, but I work very deliberately so it’s more like careful work than hard work.
My days vary a lot depending on what part of the build cycle I’m on. There are usually a few things going at once. So for instance I may have guitars in the finish room that I need to spray every three hours, and in between I can be working on other parts like tailpieces or electronics. I really enjoy the variety of it all.
Just when I’m getting a little bored doing one operation it’s time to move onto something else and use a different set of skills. Also if it’s a nice day I’m apt to close up shop and go golfing. I have a few golf buddies who work for themselves as I do, and I don’t mind making up the time on the weekend.
KS: You’re able to sell your guitars as fast as you can make them. There are a lot of people out there who would hire a big team and produce as many as possible. Why have you chosen to keep things so small?
PL: I still enjoy the work, and I love the independence of working for myself. There’s a rule of thumb in the woodworking business that if you hire one person you’ll spend a few hours a day managing that person. If you hire three or more you’re basically a full time manager.
The money isn’t that important to me, as long as I can make a decent living. It’s possible I may decide to get bigger in the future if I thought it would be fun to go in that direction. There’s nothing I do that couldn’t be learned by someone with decent skills, and it may be fun to teach that.
You have to transfer the satisfaction of building a guitar to the satisfaction of running a business that builds guitars, but I’m happy where I am right now.
KS: You’ve spent your life around people who have found a way to make a living doing what they love to do. When you look back, is there anything that those people have in common?
PL: To be honest, I don’t think it’s all that common for a person to know what they love to do, at least when it comes to work. I feel lucky that I knew from an early age, and the same is true for the successful musicians and woodworkers I know, so maybe that’s a commonality. I suppose the other point is that you have to trust it if you find it and not be afraid of failure. I’m a big fan of failure; it’s the best way to find out what doesn’t work.
KS: What do you love the most about what you do?
PL: I get to build things all day. What could be better than that?
KS: Thank you so much for your time!
PL: You’re most welcome.